By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence of California's longest serving death row inmate, a 54-year-old Mono Indian man convicted in 1978 for killing a woman during a drug- and alcohol-fueled carjacking.
Douglas Stankewitz, who has spent 34 years awaiting execution, will be re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless prosecutors decide within 90 days to retry the penalty phase of his trial, which would consider punishment only, not guilt or innocence.
The decision late on Monday by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals comes just a week before Californians vote on a referendum to abolish the death penalty in the state.
A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006, saying a three-drug lethal injection protocol risked causing inmates too much pain and suffering before death. California revised its protocol, but executions have not resumed.
An appeals court panel, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Stankewitz received ineffective legal counsel during the penalty phase of his murder trial, when he was sentenced to die.
His lawyer, they wrote, failed to investigate and present evidence "including evidence of his deprived and abusive upbringing, potential mental illness, long history of substance abuse and use of substantial quantities of drugs leading up to the murder."
In a recent interview with Reuters inside San Quentin State Prison, Stankewitz called the death penalty "a joke," and described how long delays in the appeals process, coupled with ineffective counsel, had led to him spending more than three decades waiting to die.
"They can't kill me because the system is messed up so bad," Stankewitz told Reuters during that interview.
Stankewitz suffered alcohol exposure in the womb, was removed from his home at age 6 after his mother beat him and bounced between foster care facilities where he was severely troubled and abused, court documents show.
He was 19 when he and a group of friends carjacked Theresa Graybeal, 22, from a K-Mart parking lot in Modesto and drove across California's rural heartland to Fresno, roughly 100 miles away. There, Graybeal was shot and killed.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Claudia Parsons)